Beyond the Bike Park: Winter Park, Colorado

Experiencing local, backyard mountain biking like never before. This is not about lift-assist trails, but about high-mountain adventure.

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Words and photos: Zach White
Originally published in Issue #190

When I was a kid, my great-grandmother’s humble backyard was my favorite place in the world. It couldn’t have been more than 1,000 square feet, yet within that confinement was a separate little area behind the broadside of a detached garage with a massive wall of shrubbery along with the cover of a magnolia tree’s sprawling branches. It was most likely by design that this was hidden from the back porch because that’s where the clothesline was, and nobody needed to be exposed to my great-grandpa’s questionably white whitey-tighties flapping around in the wind. This sliver of dirt, grass and plants was what I considered my jungle. It was a place that, though it was only the length of a typical clothesline and not much wider than a single-car garage, I could get lost in—or at least lose myself in. There wasn’t much motivation to explore or escape from my little jungle either, because it was just what a kid did.

As an adult, about a half-hour up the road from my house is a bigger “backyard” to explore than what’s common in most regions and which would make any parent rightfully nervous to let a preteen wander off into. This mix of National Forest, Wilderness Area and islands of private land make exploring the easternmost Rocky Mountains a bit of a gauntlet for those who both prefer to do so on a bike and care to keep all things legal, but even without falling into the self-entitled mindset of ignoring these bicycle boundaries, there’s still more than enough trail to satiate a healthy appetite for singletrack and general exploration.

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For literally decades now, I’ve only flirted with this area by bike. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, for all practical purposes, abut my front yard. Yet, over the years, I’ve found myself too distracted by trying to find comparable versions of said mountains in other locations to actually appreciate and explore what ultimately is still always the standard to which I compare other riding areas around the world. Hell, there are times when I’ve made the 1.5-hour round-trip drive to the Winter Park bike resort a couple of times a week to ride on the backside of the mountains I can see from my front porch.

My buddy Jasen caught me in the midst of a random lull in summertime travel. Had it been earlier or later in the year, my phone most likely would’ve gone straight to voicemail while I was on one of several international trips trying to match the 200 bpm travel tempo of pounding out new and interesting destination cycling stories. But oddly enough, the phone rang while I was sitting on my porch, staring at a lawn that needed weeding, instead of appreciating the mountainous backdrop just above it. Not surprisingly, Jasen was calling to pitch a story idea for a client of his. What was surprising, however, was that the destination was almost within sight of where I was sitting.

The idea was so simple and locally normal that at first it didn’t seem as if it would be worth writing about. Everyone around here goes to Winter Park to ride, or at least somewhere in the 20-mile-long Fraser Valley corridor that’s strewn with a network of hundreds of miles of trails between Trestle Bike Park and its redheaded stepchild of a neighbor, Granby Ranch. As great as it is, it’s so commonplace in my spoiled world that there was an essence of being asked to write about brushing my teeth that morning.

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Though not exactly daily, the 1.5-hour route of driving down, around and back up to the Fraser Valley to go ride for a day or two is so routine that it’s hard to get excited about, yet it has been an essential element in my Coloradan mountain bike lifestyle over the last two decades. The one thing I hadn’t done, sadly, is skip the I-70 traffic jam and take the direct, motor-restricted route to Winter Park by way of navigating a network of dirt roads and trails with questionable legalities up to the 11,660-foot Rollins Pass.

“Let’s ride there!” The words flew out of my mouth before I even thought about what that entailed.

Jasen is one of those skinny, always fit types. While I’ve never been to a movie with him, I’m guessing he talks during the most action-filled moments, as he sure as hell doesn’t have the decency to mask his ascending superiority by shutting up and letting me suffer up climbs in silence when we ride together. Regardless of which route we’d decide on, there’d be a healthy dose of climbing, and I didn’t want to be the only audience stuck listening to how horrid the idea of an Electric Singlespeed Fat Bike World Championships would be for hours on end, so I called up a couple of friends to join in on the weekend trip.

Always up for a ride, Kelli Emmett committed before there was really even a solid plan and only asked a couple of questions like “How long will we be gone for?” when she was packing the night before leaving. Eric Porter somehow made it out from Utah for the weekend too, and brought with him the gift of still-healing ribs from a recent fall, which would be a perfect excuse to keep the climbing pace a little more manageable for me.

We all met on my front porch at what each of our interpretations of 7 a.m. meant, under deceivingly sunny August skies that weren’t supposed to last very long. I’ll take complete credit/blame for opting to skip the 17-mile road climb up to where the dirt really starts, and instead taking the leisurely three-minute spin to the bus station and catching the 8:10 a.m. Route N up to Nederland. We each paid $4 to gain roughly 3,500 feet of elevation in about a half-hour instead—it’s the best four-buck deal in all of Boulder County, if not all of Colorado, if you ask me.

With that elevation variation from Boulder often comes a similar variation in temperatures, if not weather as well. Today, the sunny summer skies stayed down in Boulder as a cold, drizzly slap in the face greeted us when we stepped off the bus and scrambled to get our pile of bikes out of its belly before our short-tempered driver could throw a tantrum. You’d think driving up and down a beautiful mountain canyon for a living would instill a sense of tranquility, especially considering the route connects what was once a haven for happy, dirty hippies to their new, quainter, crunchier habitat.

Nederland.

It’s a funky little town in its own right, but when factoring in its general distaste for the gentrification of Boulder down the canyon, its vibe is decidedly Daniel-Boone-goes-to-Burning- Man. If trapping beavers and hunting moose with a black-powdered musket were still accepted in these parts, it’d be less of an oddity to see a guy in the coffee shop reach for his wallet to pay for the skinny soy double-double he ordered and “accidentally” grab his giant, fringed-and-beaded-leather-sheathed bowie knife instead. Yeah, “oops” is right.

While there is definitely an impressive amount of summer squatters in the forest surrounding Nederland—usually leftover or overly eager Rainbow People from their annual gathering up the street—there’s a damn good chance that guy with the bowie knife and homemade ensemble of striped and fringed everything is a software engineer at one of the many startup companies in the town he so outwardly fights to stray from.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with a regional interpretation of trying to look different just like everyone else. If we had stopped in a place that catered to actual card-carrying mountain men, we’d probably be less comfortable clacking around the wooden floors in our cleated shoes, ducking our helmets under potted plants held up in crocheted slings, and taking over the couch and coffee table in our semi-form fitting, super high-tech neon bike kits while trying to make last-minute decisions on the best route to take to Winter Park, given the current weather.

We suspected that the trails Jasen had chosen were legal to ride, which I know because I’d always heard and assumed otherwise, and therefore asked him if he was sure. There were a few options discussed, and we weren’t up for a longer scenic route. Besides, we were supposed to meet someone on the backside of Rollins Pass in a few hours, too, so we clacked across the warm wooden floor and back out into the face-slapping cold drizzle that’d been pissing all over our bikes left leaning up against a handrail out front while we put off the inevitable inside.

It’s a tough call what to wear when it’s miserable at the base of a 3,000-foot climb to almost 12,000 feet, though we all seemed to be on the same page, choosing to find as much comfort instantly and dealing with the unavoidable heat explosion somewhere 10 to 20 minutes up the trail.

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Nederland has a reputable trail system in its own right, and our first few miles were comfortably familiar, less the steam beginning to puff out of the neck of my jacket. That familiarity quickly faded as our guide turned left into my unknown, and things got even more foreign with each of what seemed like almost a dozen turns at intersections I’d never witnessed before. Being as how this was my first time to ride up to Rollins Pass without an engine, this unfamiliarity was expected. But, what wasn’t expected was feeling completely lost in my own backyard, which is exactly what I needed.

Through a combination of singletrack and jeep roads winding through National Forest and who knows what else, we dumped out on the dirt Rollins Pass Road, only a couple of miles from the top. Generally, dirt roads are relatively boring on mountain bikes. Today was slightly less so, with just enough of a break in the abysmal weather to allow cloud-framed views of beautiful and uncrowded Colorado high country. Fields of snow still crouched behind south-facing ridgelines, usually just above frigid ponds and lakes their larger selves had made earlier that year. Marmots squeaked profanities at us for being up in their ’hood without an invite, and the trees gave way to emerald-green grass and moss-covered granite rocks that seemed fine with a low-oxygen diet.

Though I’d been up here before, it’d never felt so gratifying as it did on a day that I pedaled up to this view. The same lack of oxygen that keeps trees from growing at these elevations made the last few hundred feet of elevation gain a punch in the gut. To make things less joyous, the weather also rolled back in. Without the protection of trees that lined the trails and dirt roads below, rain and sleet whipped together by gale-force winds shotgunned us from the west, which was the direction we were headed. I kept stopping in the name of grabbing photos, but deep down I knew I just wanted to give my face a break from the relentless bead-blasting, even if it meant making the crew expose themselves to the elements several more times than me.

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The last section was the worst and the most exposed. Shouldering our bikes up a steep hike-a-bike through a rocky scree field up and over a closed tunnel that hasn’t been in use for decades, we were met with the crumbly rock walls of an old cabin, which offered just enough shelter to hunker down in reprieve for a few minutes before pushing up and over to the western slope of Rollins Pass. In my mind, we’d funnel down from the pass and directly into classic Fraser Valley singletrack. In reality, there was more climbing, more intermittent weather and more road descending before we finally reached the Broken Thumb trailhead.

The weather, while not appreciated by most of us, added an evil twist to my personal goals of photographing this ride. On several occasions the hint of a rainbow could be seen off to our side, and the idea of capturing this day in a rainbow-bannered image had me continuing to ball up the pace of the ride with more photo stops than usual. Every time we stopped to set up a shot, another cloud rushed in and grayed out any hopes of magical backdrops, then instantly dissipated back into the beginnings of another rainbow as soon as the camera bag was zipped up for the hundredth time that day. After a few rounds, even I was over it, and we dropped back down into the trees and rain clouds toward the promise of singletrack.

Broken Thumb trail is a fun, fast and flowy ribbon that winds its way down toward the town of Winter Park through a mix of evergreen- and aspen-treed National Forest. It’s marked, mapped and maintained, and it can be added in with myriad other trails on the east side of the Fraser Valley, but we wanted nothing to do with more frigid, soggy riding and beelined it straight to the condo to quickly thaw out before walking over to a place that sounds like it should serve Mexican food but is in fact a pizza joint.

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We spent the next couple of days riding in and around the valley, which we’d all basically done before. Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park seems to be a front-runner for the largest bike park in the U.S. these days, and it’s continuing to both expand its already impressive trail system and meticulously maintain what’s already offered. A bit crowded on a fall weekend, there’s one great side-access ride off the top of the bike park that’ll surely offer a breather from the sketchy beginners and teenage groms in tank tops and full-face helmets. Mountain Goat is a trail that’s been in existence since I first started riding the mountain back in the ’90s, and it’s about as rough today as it was back then. Pleasantly smashy, the rocks and exposed roots aren’t on Winter Park’s grooming route, and that’s a good thing for those who like the challenge of such raw trail.

About 20 miles down Highway 40 and past Winter Park is Granby Ranch. A small family-oriented resort with much less elevation variation, the tiny bike park is past its heyday of the mid-2000s. In that era, Winter Park had very little interest in catering to mountain bikers, but the privately owned SolVista (the hill’s previous name with the same owners of today) rolled out the red carpet. Trails were unabashedly built to challenge the best of downhillers, and its reputation of willingness to work with the riding community awarded the resort the National Mountain Bike Championships in 2009 and 2010.

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Around that time, Winter Park finally got around to putting mountain biking on its radar, and with the advantages of being closer to the Denver metro area, having more terrain with longer runs and having a bigger budget, Winter Park quickly surpassed Granby’s bike park, leaving the cool little cutting-edge hill in its shadow. Granby is still a fun place to ride to enjoy an uncrowded afternoon, especially if the buffed and manicured trails of Trestle get stale, as Granby is relatively untouched by its crew, which makes for some crumbly, dusty, blown-out trails.

A few days of riding in Fraser Valley offered up quintessential Colorado mountain biking. I’ve been riding there for what’s added up to half my life now, and I take for granted its offerings and convenience. Before this long weekend, it’d always felt like a destination spot, though only a day trip away from home. Now, it feels more like part of my backyard and a place that I can explore more of. A place that, right from my front door, I can escape to without the need to load up the van for a drive. Though I’ll probably continue to take the bus.

 

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